An Introduction to the German School System [2021 English Guide]

The German school system, along with the higher education system, is known worldwide for its quality and accessibility, thanks to no tuition fees. Yet, the German education system is very complex and differs from those in other Western countries.

This article will introduce you to the German school system’s general structure and the many different study paths and opportunities for students in Germany. At the end of the article, we have compiled interesting facts and statistics about schooling in Germany.

How Does The German School System Work?

The German school system is a rather complex one and can be quite confusing at first sight. There are multiple ways to acquire a school degree and higher-level education, depending on each student’s interests, skills, and abilities.

The public school system is the centerpiece of Germany’s school system, despite private schools becoming more popular and almost doubling over the past two decades.

Every German state (Bundesland) is responsible for its education policy, from school types to school calendars and class subjects. However, the ministers of education from each of the sixteen states meet twice a year at a national conference ( Kultusministerkonferenz) to align their plans and practices.

There is no regional draft as to which school a student has to attend. Families in Germany are free to choose the school for their children. 

If you are interested in the specific school system in the different German states, take a look at these individual guidelines. Otherwise, let’s have a look at the general system and its different school types.

Illustration of the German School System
Illustration of the German School System

Compulsory School Attendance In Germany

Children living in Germany at the age of six to fifteen must attend school (Schulpflicht). The compulsory school attendance in Germany has its foundation in the German constitution (Grundgesetz). It is design to allow every child proper and qualified education, regardless of the family’s financial situation, to mix social classes, and prevent religious or ideological parallel societies.

Consequently, home-schooling is illegal in Germany.

Preschool Education In Germany

Whether it is kindergarten, daycare, or nursery, any type of preschool is optional and not part of the German public school system. There are many different types of preschool education in Germany. The traditional Kindergarten is for children from age three to six, whereas the Kita (Kindertagesstätte) already takes infants from six months old.

However, there is a chronic lack of enough spots for children, making it very stressful and tedious for parents to find a daycare place for their young kids close to home. We have heard stories from friends with children who had to apply for a Kita spot while still pregnant to stand a chance of getting one.

The cost of daycare differs from state to state. In Dusseldorf, where we live, daycare for children between three and six years old is free, while the cost for children younger than three depends on the parents’ income and the hours of caretaking per week. Example calculation for Kita cost in Dusseldorf for a child younger than three years: 35 hours of caretaking with a yearly income up to 60.000 euros cost 200 euros per week.

Next to preschool, parents also have the option to stay at home for up to three years while still being able to return to their job, thanks to a very supportive parental leave system. As a parent in Germany, you can also apply for parental allowance, which is financial support from the German government for the first two years after your child is born.

Related Guides:
Parental Leave In Germany [Elternzeit]
Parental Allowance In Germany [Elterngeld]

Primary School In Germany (Grundschule)

In Germany, primary school is the so-called elementary school (Grundschule) for grades 1-4 (in Berlin and Brandenburg, grades 1-6). There are 15.431 primary schools in Germany. Starting primary school is the official beginning of the German school education. This is a big day for kids, which is celebrated with the entire family. In German, it is called Einschulung, and tradition has it that kids get a big school cone (Schultüte) filled with school stationery, sweets, small gifts, and sometimes money.

Yvonne with her school cone on her first day of school in Germany
Yvonne with her school cone on her first day of school

The typical age to start primary education is six years, although exceedingly bright kids can start school in some states already at five years of age, and those that are not ready yet can start at seven years of age.

Primary schools in Germany usually take place for half-days. Parents can choose the school themselves and have to sign their children up for school and make sure that they attend regularly. Students learn to read and write, the basics of math and English in elementary school.  

At the end of primary school, teachers recommend which secondary school to continue with, although it is the parents’ choice to follow that recommendation.

Secondary School In Germany (Weiterführende Schule)

In most German states, secondary school starts with fifth grade, and this is when the differences in the German education system start. Every German state has its own school system and different names for specific schools. Despite that, there are three general types of schools in Germany that determine different education tracks and career possibilities. Those three types of German schools are Hauptschule, Realschule, and Gymnasium.

The secondary education in Germany is split into two parts: secondary level I and secondary level II. Secondary level I describes grades 5 to 10, and secondary level II describes grades 11-13.

Hauptschule (5-9th Grade)

There are 1.915 Hauptschulen in Germany. Generally speaking, the Hauptschule (in some states called Mittelschule) offers the lowest, least demanding learning level in the German education system. It is an excellent choice for pupils who want to continue their education with an apprenticeship in craft or industrial trades – the famous German Ausbildung

The Hauptschule gets them ready for such vocational training, starting after the final examination (Hauptschulabschluss) after grade 9. Students that attend the Hauptschule can also decide to study one more year to finish with the higher-rated Realschul degree at the end of 10th grade.

After graduating from the Hauptschule, the education continues as part of a two to three-year-long vocational training, which operates in a dual system. Students spend around three days a week in their company and around two days a week at vocational school (Berufsschule). These students/workers are referred to as Auszubildende or short Azubis. They usually get paid by the company around 1/3 of the standard salary for the job they are training in.

After completing their vocational school and training, they are certified tradespeople of the chosen craft.

Realschule (5-10th Grade)

There are 1.781 Realschulen in Germany. The Realschule in Germany offers mid-level education. It is more challenging than the Hauptschule, but a step lower than the Gymnasium. The Realschule prepares students with practical and theoretical knowledge for their future professional life. Students usually have the option to choose a focus area, such as an additional foreign language or science subjects. 

After completing the Realschulabschluss, a.k.a. Mittlere Reife or Fachoberschulreife, students have multiple options to continue their education. Should their grades and performance have been satisfactory, they stand the option to continue to the higher level of secondary school at a Gymnasium. They also have the option to pursue vocational training (Ausbildung) or attend an internship for a better orientation of their desired profession.

As a last option, students completing the Realschule can also take a year for volunteering (Freiwilligendienst). This is quite common in Germany; it helps to gain professional experience and orientation for future education. There are different types of volunteering opportunities in the social, ecological, and cultural areas within Germany and abroad.

Even without an Abitur (see Gymnasium), students with a Realschulabschluss also have the possibility to continue with higher education. That is after they completed their three-year vocational training and gained a few years of work experience.

Gymnasium (5-12/13th Grade)

The Gymnasium is the highest form of secondary education and aims to prepare students for continued university education. It is the most popular school type in Germany’s secondary school system, with a total of 3.141 Gymnasien. You can find different types of Gymnasien in Germany. Some are boys and girls only; the church runs some, and others focus on sports, science, or arts. It is not uncommon that a Gymnasium and Realschule share the same building and schoolyard.

Traditionally the Gymnasium has nine grades (G9), leading to a total of 13 years in school. However, in the early 2000s, a school reform decided to cut one year (while keeping the same amount of learning matter) to end the school education after grade 12 (G-8). This change should allow German students to be more competitive with other European students, who finish school at a younger age.

There have been huge protests and discussions regarding this reform, as students got overwhelmed and had no more time for social activities in the afternoons. Today, a lot of states have returned to G-9 and a total of 13 years in school. The curriculum at a Gymnasium has an academic focus, with a minimum of two foreign languages, higher math and science courses, with the goal to reach the university level.

The secondary level II, which starts with grade 11 serves as a preparation for future university studies. Students have to choose two focus subjects (Leistungskurse) and two additional subjects for the big final exam, known as Abitur or Allgemeine Hochschulreife.

A German university must accept any student with an Abi (short for Abitur); however, there are no guarantees that the student gets accepted to their desired field of study. The final grade of the Abitur (also referred to as NC for numerus clausus) plays a big role in getting accepted by the favorable university to the desired field of study. Especially degree courses like law and medicine are highly competitive and require an Abitur with a stellar NC or flexibility in terms of the university’s location.

Gesamtschule (5-13th Grade)

The Gesamtschule combines all three tracks of school education in one comprehensive school, making it easier to switch tracks if necessary. It was introduced in the late 1960s with the idea to replace the traditional three school system but it was never fully adapted. In some German states, the comprehensive school coexists with the three traditional schools.

While the traditional three main schools usually only have half-day classes, a lot of Gesamtschulen offer full-day classes.

Special Needs Schools In Germany

There are very few schools in Germany with an inclusive concept for children and teenagers with learning disabilities. Instead, there are specific schools for students with special needs. Those schools are called Förderschule or Sonderschule. There is some controversy regarding this system, as it prevents disabled students from integrating into daily life.

International Schools In Germany

International schools are gaining in popularity in Germany, amongst German and expat families alike. Most international schools in Germany are private schools with a tuition fee and teach in English or bilingual. They teach in smaller classes and do not follow the German curriculum. Most international schools in Germany teach to acquire the International Baccalaureate (IB) degree after 12th grade. This means that students at international schools will mostly not get the Abitur. Though, the IB will allow them to study at German and international universities. With the following link, you can find an overview of international schools in Germany

Private Schools In Germany

Private schools have never played such a big role in Germany compared to other countries. However, private schools have doubled in the last two decades, making it 5.839 private schools in Germany in 2019. Those range from elementary schools to higher education institutes. 

Private schools typically charge tuition fees and require an admission test. They follow the German curriculum to attain the Abitur, while some also offer other diplomas. 

While there is no school uniform at public schools in Germany, some private schools have them implemented. Students in Eastern and Southern Germany attend private schools a lot more than in Northern and Western Germany. 

Unlike in other countries, private schools have to stagger the tuition fees based on the parents’ income or offer different benefits. As per the German basic law (Grundgesetz), private schools cannot cause a divide in society due to some families’ financial possibilities or lack thereof. In 2016, the average tuition fee per year per child was 2.000 euros. 

Boarding Schools In Germany

A boarding school in Germany is called Internat, and there are over 250 different boarding schools in Germany. They range from elite-type with a high academic focus and strict rules to sport or music boarding schools. Some of the Internate are still boys and girls only. 

Almost all boarding schools in Germany are private schools, and they follow the German curriculum up to the Abitur while also offering specialized courses and activities.  

Higher Education In Germany

Germany is renowned for offering high-class tuition-free university education. In some states, there is a so-called Semesterbeitrag (semester contribution) of about 50 to 300 euros and a special tuition charge if a student exceeds the regular study-time. Foreign exchange students may also have to pay fees for specific programs. According to the QS-Ranking, 12 German universities are rated amongst the best 200 universities in the world. 

Next to traditional universities, which focus mainly on theoretical studies, there are plenty of other higher education schools in Germany. According to Statista, in 2019, Germany had a total of 424 higher education schools. Those consist of:

  • 213 universities for applied science (Fachhochschule or FH), which focus on a more practical way of teaching
  • 107 universities, 52 art colleges (Kunsthochschulen)
  • 30 administrative training institutes (Verwaltungsfachhochschulen)
  • 16 theological institutes (theologische Hochschulen)
  • 6 teacher training colleges (pädagogische Hochschulen)

The number of students pursuing academic degrees in Germany increased by almost 50% from 2002 to 2019, making it 2.891.049 students. 

Germany’s academic curriculum was changed and adjusted to international standards in 2002 by introducing the Bachelor and Master degrees. The previous ‘Diplom’ took mostly four years to acquire. Nowadays, the Bachelor takes three years, optionally followed by a one or two year Master. 

Is Schooling Free In Germany?

Yes, it is. Germany’s public education system, including universities, is open to anyone living in Germany at pretty much no cost if the qualifications are met. The cost for required study-materials, school-trips, or exchanges needs to be covered by each student or family individually.

The German School Year Explained

The German school year has two terms, the 1. Halbjahr usually ending at the end of January and the 2. Halbjahr usually ending in June or July. When a school year in Germany starts and ends differs from state to state. To avoid overcrowding, traffic jams, and sold out tourist destinations, the 16 different German states have a staggered vacation schedule, which rotates every year. Historically though, the southern states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg always start the school year last. 

Generally speaking, school in Germany starts in late summer (Mid-August to Mid-September). Instead of one very long break in summer, the German school year has several shorter vacation periods (Schulferien). 

These Are The Main German School Vacation Periods: 

  • 2 weeks Fall vacation (Herbstferien)
  • 2 weeks Christmas and New Years vacation (Weihnachtsferien)
  • 2 weeks Easter vacation (Osterferien)
  • 6 weeks Summer vacation (Sommerferien)

Schulferien.org always lists the vacation schedule per state and year.

The German School Day Explained

A typical German school day starts around 8 am and finishes around 1 pm, with six 45-minutes classes and two breaks (Große Pause). When joining a school in Germany, a student becomes part of a fixed class with a lead teacher (Klassenlehrer). The class remains the same for the entire school education (for elementary and secondary level I school), except for elective subjects. The lead teacher usually changes about every three years. 

Each class usually gets their classroom (Klassenzimmer), where they get all the main classes taught. Students usually move to another or specifically equipped classroom for specialized school lessons, such as science, sports, art, and elective subjects. 

Each term, the class gets a new timetable, which repeats itself each week. Below you can find an exemplary German timetable. Please note that every school and state will have a slightly different format. 

Example Of A German Timetable In Secondary School

Example of German School Timetable

Most German schools don’t have a cafeteria, and students eat at home. There are usually some extra-curricular clubs that occur once a week; however, most afternoon activities, whether athletics, art, or music, occur outside of school at clubs or dedicated private schools. 

In recent years, the concept of full-day school (often in form of a Gesamtschule) has become more popular but remains a minority, as cafeterias have to be added to schools.

German Grading System In Secondary Schools

The German grading system in secondary school relies on the following 6-mark number system:

Grade (Note)Grade in WordsEnglish Translation
1Sehr gutVery good
2Gut Good
3BefriedigendSatisfactory
4AusreichendAdequate
5MangelhaftPoor
6UngenügendVery poor

An exam or an entire grade gets passed with a 1-4. If the school certificate (Zeugnis) at the end of the school year shows two or more 5s or one 6, the student usually has to repeat the entire school year. Usually, a student can repeat a school year twice during their education before having to change school track to a less challenging school. The Germans call the repetition of a school year’ sitzen bleiben‘, which literally means to stay seated.

When attending a Gymnasium, there is one exception. While 5th and 6th grade serves as an orientation phase of whether the Gymnasium is the right fit for the student. The 7th grade is the so-called trial year and can’t be repeated. If a student fails to pass this grade, they have to change tracks to Realschule.

It is not uncommon that students, who received a 5 or 6 on a paper or exam during the school year, have to get the grade (which is written below the exam) signed by their parents to ensure that parents are aware of their child’s performance. In addition, schools send the so-called ‘Blaue Briefe‘ letters in a blue envelope at least ten weeks before the final Zeugnis to the parents of students at risk of needing to repeat the school year. 

In certain cases, it is also possible for especially bright and talented students to skip one grade. If teachers, the school’s direction, and parents agree, that it is beneficial for the student. 

German School System Facts

We have researched and collected some stats and facts regarding the German school system. Here it goes.

Final Thoughts

The German education system is so complex and versatile to allow every student to match their abilities. Despite the lack of digitalization in most German schools, Germany’s school system is quite good compared to other countries. Be aware, though, that you will hear lots of Germans complain about it.